One Country’s Attempt to Internationally Criminalize a Phrase: Incentive to Increase Historical Awareness?

By Savannah Priebe

World War II, though only a six year war, unearthed some of the most unbelievably grotesque capabilities of man on an extremely large scale. The events that occurred in the Nazi internment camps are becoming more and more publicized and widely known throughout the world. Though many individuals may not know the extent of the carnage, nor the specific details, if you mention Adolf Hitler, a deranged scheme to create a superior race, mainly by eradicating the Jewish population, comes to mind.

Seventy one years later, the wounds of Hitler’s horrific objectives are still raw. Especially for those few remaining survivors, their families, and the countries where this disaster was permitted to occur. This pain, and these ever present wounds created by the atrocities that befell those innocent persons at the hands of so many misguided, yet willing citizens are exactly what lead Poland to their latest grasp at ending the ignorance that surrounds the “death camps.”

Poland has proposed legislation that would make it illegal for any individual to say phrases such as, “Polish labor camps,” “Polish extermination camps,” or “Polish death camps.”[1] Any person found guilty of saying such phrases would be punished by up to three years in prison and an undetermined monetary fine.[2] This proposal has already been approved by the Polish Cabinet, however it has yet to officially pass through Parliament and be approved as a law.[3]

The proposed law would make it a crime even for those who were unaware of the law, or uninformed that their speech was incorrect, criminal, or wrong in any way.[4] Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro stated that, “those who committed it [saying one of the phrases] unintentionally will be fined or detained. The ruling will be announced publicly.”[5]

Based on the proposed legislation, several issues may arise. How would this new law created by Poland affect international communities and relationships? Could a United States Citizen, in the United States, or any Country other than Poland, be found guilty of committing a crime for saying these phases? International law suggests that a nation would have to enter into an agreement in order for such a law to be binding on their citizens[6], yet could Poland extend such phrases to the level of international criminalization? The Justice of Ministry has clarified that the current proposal would give the “Polish system of justice . . . global jurisdiction over the offence, as it has now over many other criminal behaviors.”[7] Cooperation by other Nations would of course be necessary in order to fulfill Poland’s intentions of global criminalization.[8] Yet, the law on a global scale would likely be more symbolic than actionable. Nations likely would not assist Poland in incarcerating their citizens for an accidental, or even purposeful statement such as “Poland death camps,” especially in Nations such as the United States where Freedom of Speech is so highly regarded.

Further, what effect would this type of criminalization have? It appears that Poland wishes to create such a law in order to increase awareness that Poland was in fact invaded and even though there were internment camps created within Polish borders, the Polish did not accept nor endorse the dreadful activities carried out within those walls.[9] The likelihood that criminalization of ignorance would result in awareness is very limited. Additionally, the Polish’s aim to effectively criminalize ignorance of Poland’s involvement in the unlawful detainment of the Jewish and others,  by incarceration for up to three years really sends a confusing message. 

It has been noted that in Poland, a successful campaign has been created to request corrections of incorrect statements and portrayals by media, politicians, and the like.[10] Once made aware it appears that most are very receptive to correcting any mistakes that may have previously been made in addressing such camps as “Polish” or Supported by Poland.[11] Poland further wishes to spread this knowledge that they were not participants in the Nazi’s agenda, but rather that they were victims.[12]

Though Poland’s intentions seem proper, and their wish to inform the world that they were indeed victims and not war criminals, is entirely understandable, their current approach appears to be out of bounds and overreaching, in an international context. Nonetheless, even the proposal of such laws and regulations is doing exactly what Poland aims to do, increasing awareness, and providing a starting point for the conversation. Even if Poland abandons their quest to criminalize these phrases, they have at least been successful in advocating for their Country and are one step closer in realizing their ultimate objective of education regarding Poland’s involvement in World War II.

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[1] Elizabeth Roberts, Poland wants to outlaw phrases like 'Polish death camps', CNN (Aug. 19, 2016, 6:08 AM),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See Lori Fisler Damrosch & Sean D. Murphy, International Law (6th ed. 2014).

[7] Roberts, supra note 1.

[8] Fisler, et al., supra note 6.

[9] Roberts, supra note 1.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.